Computation in Physical Systems: A Normative Mapping Account

In Matteo Vincenzo D'Alfonso & Don Berkich (eds.), On the Cognitive, Ethical, and Scientific Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence. Springer Verlag. pp. 27-47 (2019)
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The relationship between abstract formal procedures and the activities of actual physical systems has proved to be surprisingly subtle and controversial, and there are a number of competing accounts of when a physical system can be properly said to implement a mathematical formalism and hence perform a computation. I defend an account wherein computational descriptions of physical systems are high-level normative interpretations motivated by our pragmatic concerns. Furthermore, the criteria of utility and success vary according to our diverse purposes and pragmatic goals. Hence there is no independent or uniform fact to the matter, and I advance the ‘anti-realist’ conclusion that computational descriptions of physical systems are not founded upon deep ontological distinctions, but rather upon interest-relative human conventions. Hence physical computation is a ‘conventional’ rather than a ‘natural’ kind.

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Paul Schweizer
University of Edinburgh


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